Justine Greening is MP for Putney, and a former Secretary of State for Education.
Last December, the Prime Minister seemed on course to deliver on her Lancaster House and Mansion Houses speeches which had set out her red lines on the Government’s Brexit negotiations.
But months later, by the summer, after I had left Cabinet, we were suddenly faced with the Chequers Deal, an unworkable fudge of the worst kind. It was no wonder David Davis and Boris Johnson, my friends and colleagues, resigned from Cabinet. This was not the Leave they had campaigned for.
I described it as the ‘worst of all worlds’ back in July. It was clear then that this proposal would not succeed in the Commons. And now, far from “taking back control”, the legal incarnation of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in fact represents the biggest sovereignty giveaway ever seen in peacetime for our country. As Boris has said: “This deal is a disaster for our country. It basically means the EU can blackmail us into any terms they like in the course of the negotiations on our future.”
And with a price tag of £39 billion for the privilege. As Jacob Rees-Mogg has said: “This deal hands over £39 billion of UK taxpayers’ money with no guarantee of any long term agreement in return. In two years’ time we could be in the same place less £39 billion.”
Of course, for our Conservative and Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland border issue is one of the many problems with the Prime Minister’s deal. The Prime Minister is now seeking to get progress on the so-called “backstop”, but it’s clear that meaningless, warm words from a Brussels communique will not fob off the very real concerns of many MPs about the Union and the Good Friday Agreement. It will not change the minds of principled MPs who gave up Government jobs and Cabinet careers because they know this deal as a whole is a bad one for Britain.
As for the rest of what has been signed up to – the rules without say, being subject to EU fines, and blocked UK representation internationally – pressure from the whips will not get Conservative MPs who have publicly come out against this deal to suddenly do a U-turn after Christmas. As Martin Howe QC put it: “It would not let us forge our own trade policy with other parts of the world. It would not make our economy more competitive. It would not give us back control of our laws. This is not a bad deal. It is an atrocious deal.”
However, it’s not just the Prime Minister’s failed compromise deal that will not get a majority backing it. Parliament is gridlocked on any version of Brexit. Two years on, that’s the uncomfortable reality.
Labour might have no meaningful policy on Brexit, but it is the Conservative Party that is in Government and it is our responsibility to find a solution. The added challenge is the almost impossible Parliamentary maths following the monumental mistake of the 2017 general election, which left the Prime Minister short of a majority for anything.
Colleagues across the House are now trying to find a way through this mess. From Canada to Norway, or a second referendum, MPs are trying to find a way out the dead end we have been driven into by these failed negotiations.
I don’t pretend for one second that a second referendum is a perfect solution to the difficulties that the country and the Conservative Party now finds itself in. It would have been preferable if the Prime Minister had achieved a deal which could get the support of the public. Instead, hers has just 15 per cent support among the public. I also recognise that the public are fed up to the back teeth with Brexit and would prefer Parliament to “just get on with it”. They have every right to be. It’s two-and-a-half years since Brexit, and still no deal has been voted on. As things stand, the Government’s even pulled the Parliamentary debate. We’re going round in circles and we need to get a direction fast.
We now know the choices facing Britain on Brexit. The choices are to take the Prime Minister’s deal, to reject the Prime Minister’s deal and leave on WTO terms, or to keep our existing deal.
If Parliament cannot find a consensus for itself, we must trust the British people to do it and let them choose from the three options ahead for the future of our country. There are two ways to do that. Either through a referendum or risking a general election and a possible Corbyn government. That is not a risk we should take.
My proposal for a Consensus Referendum would give people the choice between the three options, with first and second preference votes to avoid splitting the Brexit vote unfairly. Having three options on the ballot paper isn’t complicated, more than two options is what most voters have at every single election. As for first and second preference votes, it’s how we elect mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners up and down the country.
I also propose the Government should not have a formal position on campaigning in the referendum, staying neutral to recognise that people across the Conservative Party have very genuinely held, but different, views on the best course forward.
A second referendum might annoy people in the short term while we all find a solution. But it will be nothing compared to Parliament having stitched them up to vote through a deal that is clearly unpopular, doesn’t deliver for Remain or Leave voters, will tie us up in knots for decades, and will cost us £39 billion in the process.
A second referendum to find the next step forward, backed by 52 per cent of the public, might not be something we look forward to, but voting through a Brexit plan that pleases just 15 per cent of voters is far from a recipe for electoral success. And make no mistake, it will used by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to attack us with for the year to come and beyond.
That’s the choice for MPs and for our Party in the New Year. Agree to a back room deal that the public does not want and delivers for no one, or let the public choose a route forward that finally gives Britain the direction we desperately need.